By John A Raju:
A cold blooded massacre. An act whose perpetrators are clear. A passive response from those who should take action. A public outcry. A commission, an investigation and a trial. A verdict after a decade and a half. End result: perpetrators acquitted, more public outcry, democracy deceived. Similar script, similar climax, different actors. Except, this isn’t a movie. This is real life injustice sanctioned and carried out by the Indian Army without having to suffer the consequences a murder of this scale usually brings. I am referring to the clean chit given to the Army in the Pathribal ‘fake encounter’ case.
The Pathribal case brings to light the darkest extent of the powers the Army enjoys as part of the military occupation of Kashmir. Though the Pathribal incident took place on 25 March 2000, its genesis was the Chattisinghpora massacre (which wasn’t even investigated satisfactorily). On 20 March 2000, on the eve of Bill Clinton’s visit to India, around 15 unidentified men dressed in Indian Army outfit ordered Sikh boys and men of the Chattisinghpora village to assemble at the village gurdwara. They were then shot and killed. 36 casualties. A unit of the Rashtriya Rifles stationed nearby failed to intervene and this attack on civilians left just one survivor, Nanak Singh. The attack was seen as an attempt to create communal tensions on the arrival of the US president. However, no terrorist outfit took up the responsibility of the attack and even before an investigation was under way, the LeT and Hizbul Mujahideen were accused by the Indian government of carrying out the murders. Theories still abound on who were the perpetrators of this incident. However, five days later, the Army in collaboration with the police rounded up and killed five men in the Pathribal village. The Army claimed these men were the “foreign militants” responsible for the Chattisinghpora incident. After a gunfight, they were subsequently blown up in a hut where they took shelter from gunfire. Their bodies were charred beyond recognition. Without even a post mortem, the bodies were buried.
But truth cannot be buried so easily. Or so we thought. Under relentless pressure from activists and village witnesses, local authorities were forced to investigate these killings. The bodies were exhumed and DNA tests conducted. Here is where we see the limit of cold bloodedness. The DNA samples collected were faked to show that these men were foreign militants. It led to the heart breaking statement of Raja Bano, mother of the deceased Zahoor Dalal, “I do not need DNA tests to recognize my son”. When the cover up was discovered and original DNA obtained, it was conclusively established that the murdered were innocent civilians and not foreign militants. This proved that the Pathribal killings were a staged drama, a fake encounter. After this, the CBI investigation clearly established the roles of Brigadier Ajay Saxena, Major Bijendra Pratap Singh, Major Sourabh Sharma, Major Amit Saxena and Subedar Idrees Khan played in this mass murder and even told before the Supreme Court that these were premeditated “cold blooded murder and the officials deserved exemplary punishment”. However, under the immunity provided by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), they couldn’t be tried in a normal court. The Supreme Court sought sanction to try the Army officials or told the Army to court martial them. Naturally, the Army has to protect its children, however unruly they are. So, court martial was finally done. And in a drama that spanned almost 14 years, “shockingly”, the murderers have been acquitted. Truth cannot be buried “easily” but it can certainly be buried.
World’s largest democracy? Not for the select few in the Indian Army who are occupying the Kashmir valley. For them, it is a free hand in anything they do, be it murder, rape, torture or looting. After all, there is the dreaded AFSPA to protect them. When the lawbreaker and lawmaker are one, where can there be justice? Where can the innocent families go to seek the truth about what happened to their own? Without a transparent trial, the Army men who murdered civilians without any justification are walking free, probably laughing about the joke of a court martial and sipping their military quota of booze. Injustice & cold bloodedness aren’t strong enough words to describe this verdict.
What this acquittal does is to further the animosity between the Army and the Kashmiris. Even the Army members who genuinely want to protect the population become hated figures. Seeing someone in that uniform daily traveling up and down your street, brandishing guns, is not a particularly pleasing sight in a valley known for its picturesque landscape. That this protector could be your destroyer too is an even more damning thought.
It is depressing and degrading that the lives of the Kashmiris are held in scant regard in a nation priding on its diversity. The Army’s unregulated power in this region must be repealed. In whatever manner the Kashmir issue is resolved, the Army’s fearless foray into the everyday events of this region must be halted. The civilians must have their rights and they must be given assurances in action and not just in words, that injustices done to them, by anyone, won’t go unpunished. If not done soon, then even as similar scripts play out, there will be a twist at the climax and some day that story is going to have a more gory end.
A protest demonstration demanding reopening of the case and repeal of AFSPA is being organised at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi tomorrow. Click here for the event details.